Amidst the current Brexit saga in the U.K., it seems that clarity around the very fundamentals of British democracy is becoming increasingly murky. It’s fascinating, and depressing, how few people seem to understand how our political system works—including plenty of people elected to Parliament.
On the radio, I heard a member of Parliament say that, because his constituents voted to leave the European Union, he was obliged to vote in favor of May’s Brexit proposal. This is a deal that has almost universally been acknowledged as bad for the country. His decision to vote this way seems to be unaffected by the fact that his constituents, like many others in hard leave-voting areas, will undeniably end up poorer and, in many cases, unemployed.
Brexit is clearly bad for the economy. I don’t think even Brexiteers argue otherwise now.
Last week, Nissan announced it was backing out of plans to manufacture its new SUV model at its plant in Sunderland, which can easily be linked to Brexit. This decision will lead to job losses now and fewer jobs being created in the future. The city of Sunderland voted 61 percent in favor of leaving the E.U. Was this what they thought they were voting for? Should their MP protect them by ignoring the opinion they expressed in the referendum or should she push ahead and support Brexit despite now knowing what harm it will do to the people she represents?
The current situation is particularly interesting in the context of two bits of U.K. legislation from the last century: the introduction of the seat belt law and the smoking ban. Both were deeply unpopular with many people but ultimately deemed good policy, so they were basically forced on us by our elected representatives despite being unpopular.
Requiring passengers in the front seat of cars to wear a seat belt was a running debate through the 1970s, and eventually became law in 1983 in the U.K. As a result, the number of people wearing seat belts jumped overnight, from 30 percent to 95 percent. It is estimated that this may have saved over 50,000 lives since the law was established. After all, studies have shown you are twice as likely to die in a car accident if you aren’t wearing a seat belt.
When this law was enacted, my usually very responsible, law-abiding grandfather absolutely refused to wear a seat belt. He thought the State telling him to do so was a terrible breach of his rights. In his mind, this was the government going way too far—and he was part of that government!
Almost 40 years later, we don’t even think about this law.
Then there’s the smoking ban. As with the seat belt law, plenty of people felt the government had no right to tell them where and when they could smoke. The government responded that smoking harms both smokers and those around them, that those who smoke are a greater burden on the public-funded healthcare system, and they can become less effective at work due to ill health. This was bad for the economy, for society, and for everyone’s health. The government deemed it their duty to legislate against popular opinion for the good of the citizens and society.
The smoking ban led to the U.K. seeing one of the largest drops in deaths from lung cancer in the world, with the number more than halving since 1965. And the number of young people who have started smoking has halved since the ban.
It’s not uncommon for elected representatives to make an informed decision that, although unpopular, is in the best interest of the people and the nation. Both these laws were not in line with the vocal “will of the people.” In effect, MPs were saying that even if their constituents hated the idea, it was their duty to do what was best for them, as their representatives in the legislature.
With Brexit, we are seeing this battle playing out again. Brexit is clearly bad for the economy. I don’t think even Brexiteers argue otherwise now. Moving forward with Brexit will lead to job losses, and one estimate suggests it could cost each citizen of this country around £2,000, due to lost trade and currency devaluation. Brexit is quite like smoking. Some people may enjoy it, and may want to do it regardless of the harm it causes, but it is the duty of elected representatives to rise above that and do what is best for us. To do otherwise is populist, and the current crisis in Venezuela shows where populism can lead.
We live in a representative democracy. We elect parliamentarians to represent us. We do not live in a direct democracy where the will of the people is directly enacted. Instead, we delegate to MPs the responsibility to become informed on topics and make decisions on our behalf. These decisions range from economics to health care. We the people do not claim to be experts in macroeconomics or health care policy. We pay MPs to do that for us.
Imagine if constituents asked their MP to vote to repeal the smoking ban. Would Parliament cancel legislation that has saved thousands of lives in order to do the “will of the people”?
When an MP says that he is pursuing legislation that his constituents want him to enact—even if he thinks it will be bad for them—he is not acting in the tradition of democratic legislation, as the seat belt law and the smoking ban show. In effect, he is drifting away from a representative democratic process to one of direct rule and populism. In doing so, he is failing to understand and honor the system he is a part of.
With Brexit, if our system were working, we would be asking Parliament to do what is best for us. If MPs conclude that the reality of Brexit—which is far removed from the superficial campaign promises of the referendum—is actually going to damage the lives of constituents, then parliamentarians should not vote for it. To do otherwise is populism. A populist approach to smoking would likely have never banned it in public spaces. Like I did in the 1970s, children would still come home from school stinking of cigarette smoke from the bus or tube, or even the teacher’s staff room. To put it in context, imagine if constituents asked their MP to vote to repeal the smoking ban. Would Parliament cancel legislation that has saved thousands of lives in order to do the “will of the people”?
With Brexit, it is now clear that the referendum essentially asked MPs to vote for something bad for the people and the nation. It is the responsibility of MPs to explain why it will be bad for them—not just sheepishly harp on about the “will of the people” and follow their lead. Parliament has never been about the direct will of the people in relation to a specific policy, and people like Liam Fox and Jacob Rees-Mogg should be ashamed of using this as their main argument for crashing out of Europe regardless of the harm it does to the country.
Our representative democracy is designed to allow information and knowledge to shape policy over time. To remain steadfastly supportive of a single decision stated on one particular day simply isn’t how our political system works. The referendum itself was a stupid decision, and it’s clear now that David Cameron never expected it to happen, let alone to go against him. The referendum was deeply flawed and riddled with illegality, so it should not be defining the future of this country.
Probably the best way to fix the damage of a referendum so badly designed is to have another that is better designed and based on several years of activity, information, and experience. MPs should not be afraid of explaining to their constituents why they think Brexit is not a good idea now—that would be the truly democratic thing to do. Their refusal to assert their agency and hold a second referendum now that people are more informed is just cowardly.